Grooming & Special Needs

How does it affect young people and vulnerable adults?

Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines exploitation:

  • can affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years;

  • can affect any vulnerable adult over the age of 18 years;

  • can still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual;

  • can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence;

  • can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults; and is typifed by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources. One of the key factors found in most cases of county lines exploitation is the presence of some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). Where it is the victim who is offered, promised or given something they need or want, the exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection). It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a young person or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative can also fulfl the requirement for exchange, for example a young person who engages in county lines activity to stop someone carrying out a threat to harm his/her family.

Who is vulnerable to county lines exploitation?

The national picture on county lines continues to develop but there are recorded cases of:

  • children as young as 12 years old being exploited or moved by gangs to courier drugs out of their local area; 15-16 years is the most common age range both males and females being exploited
  • White British children being targeted because gangs perceive they are more likely to evade police detection but a person of any ethnicity or nationality may be exploited  the use of social media to make initial contact with children and young people
  • class A drug users being targeted so that gangs can takeover their homes (known as ‘cuckooing’). We do know that county lines exploitation is widespread, with gangs from big cities including London, Manchester and Liverpool operating throughout England, Wales and Scotland. Gangs are known to target vulnerable children and adults; some of the factors that heighten a person’s vulnerability include: having prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • lack of a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (domestic violence or parental substance misuse, mental health issues or criminality, for example)
  • social isolation or social difficulties
  • economic vulnerability
  • homelessness or insecure accommodation status
  • connections with other people involved in gangs
  • having a physical or learning disability
  • having mental health or substance misuse issues;
  • being in care (particularly those in residential care and those with interrupted care histories)
  • being excluded from mainstream education, in particular

What to do if you are concerned Any practitioner working with a vulnerable person who they think may be at risk of county lines exploitation should follow their local safeguarding guidance and share this information with local authority social services. If you believe a person is in immediate risk of harm, you should contact the police.

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